In COUNTRY LIFE of June 28th 2017, Mark Griffiths investigates the true story of healing with herbs and Britain’s history of folk medicine.
Keen-eyed library staff spotted that this Country Life article mentions a notable English book of herbs entitled ‘The herball or generall historie of plantes’ by John Gerard (1545-1612), originally published as early as 1598. John Gerard was the servant of William Cecil (Lord Burleigh), and Gerard dedicates his Herball to his master.
The RAU actually holds a 1633 edition of this text in its Historical Collection, which is an enlarged, revised and corrected edition of Gerard’s original Herball and as such contains many corrections and new information. It is a wonderful source of knowledge from the past, containing beautiful woodcut illustrations outlining many plants both native and non-native, and their associated “vertues”.
According to Mark Griffiths, “the last two decades of Elizabeth I’s reign saw an explosion of native herbalism”, and he points to the multitude of herbal and plant allusions in Shakespeares’s work (the great playwright being a near contemporary of Gerard’s of course).
Despite accusations of plagiarism (far from a new phenomenon!) and lack of scientific rigour, Gerard’s Herball was considered the best and most exhaustive work of its kind, and remained a standard reference for some time. In fact there is said to be evidence of the book still being in practical use as a medicinal herbal, even in the early 19th century.
You can find the relevant issue of Country Life in the Library.